The official launch of the European KIC program in Australia, an initiative that aims to develop innovative scientific, legal, and business models for tackling climate change, saw European Union ambassador to Australia HE Mr Sem Febrizi, visit Melbourne on Monday 3 April.
The Italian-born career diplomat has developed an acute eye for spotting the intrigues of political life having seen it all from the inside through his work as a senior public servant and diplomat in Rome, Brussels, and Beijing.
Sem Fabrizi is regarded as one of the most experienced diplomats to have served the European family during some of its most challenging times.
Brexit, described by some as the greatest disaster to befall the EU in its 60 year history, served as the perfect kick-start to our conversation at the University of Melbourne Law Centre following the KIC program launch.
How do you think Brexit will change the balance of power within EU and further impact the economic resources upon which EU could draw, compared to those available prior to UK’s exit?
It is a complex situation and it is difficult for me or anybody [else] to have a clear view. The negotiations have just started: Article 50 was only triggered only on 29 March, so it is difficult for anyone to have a long-term view because nobody know how the negotiations will develop. May I just draw attention to the fact that it is certainly a huge issue but I wouldn’t call it the most difficult issue we have faced over the past 60 years. We need to give to the issue the right space and perspective. For the time being, yes we always [grew], we never had somebody who was exiting the EU so these are unchartered waters for us. The EU was established in 1957 and UK came on board in 1973 which means that the EU was born without the UK and it will continue to exist without it. Yes the UK is a big partner, it is important and influential but Europe has enough resources, wisdom, and wealth to go forward, even without the UK.
I will give you some numbers; even without the UK, the EU will be 445 million people strong; an economy of US$17 trillion. It will not be the largest world economy anymore, but it will be the second largest after the US. We will, however, remain the largest market for exports -around three billion euro annually; we will remain the largest importer and exporter of foreign direct investment. These are important numbers and we have calculated them.
We are a union of 27 members; it is an important block in terms of demography, in terms of economy, in terms of trade and in terms of investment. The critical mass remains there. Of course the British have a great tradition of forward-thinking, a very pro-business, pro-trade, pro-globalisation approach from which the union had benefitted a lot, so from this perspective it will be a loss for the EU.
ON GREECE AND RUSSIA
Several analysts have expressed concerns regarding Greece’s post-Brexit future within the EU, as some of the 27 remaining members may not show the same understanding for Greece’s ongoing financial predicament.
In terms of political flexibility, we should not forget the fact that the UK is not part of the Eurozone, so in that sense it might be easy to be flexible, if you are not part of the system. Greece as with Germany, Italy, or Spain are sharing the same currency so they have even a closer union within the EU. The degree of flexibility when you are dealing with budgets and money is limited because of the common currency which creates common responsibilities. It was relatively easy for the UK to be showing flexibility within the EU because they are not part of the system, controlled by the Central Bank and so on. In my opinion, Brexit will not affect the dynamics or the flexibility that other member-states will show towards Greece and the challenges it faces. Nothing will change.
As George Orwell put it in his 1947 essay on European unity, one of the “active malignant forces” that stood in opposition to a free western European union at the time, was Russia. Many would argue that not much has changed in the past 70 years and that Putin’s Russia has had the same plans for the EU all along.
There is speculation that if the EU disintegrates and Trump destabilises the NATO alliance, Putin’s Russia will have Europe exactly where it wants it; under its control. Meanwhile, the last couple of years has seen similar views gain more ground since the annexation of Crimea and thanks to scenarios around Russia’s possible involvement in the US elections. Is this a valid threat in your opinion, and if so, what is the EU doing to protect itself from new Russia’s geopolitical aspirations?
We have been engaging and liaising with Russia over the past 25 years. Lately, however, we have seen an alteration on the ground of the established and agreed borders of Ukraine and that is a blatant violation of an international agreement. We have declared, and we will continue to declare, the annexation of Crimea as an illegal act in international law and have since then put in place economic sanctions vis-à-vis Russia. Our position is clear; we are worried about the facts, and in this case the fact at hand is the annexation of Crimea which is illegal and the sanctions will remain there for as long as the situation does not change. In that regard, we do not see Russia as an enemy by definition. For example, we have cooperated quite closely with them when dealing with the nuclear program in Iran. I am referring to the famous mutual and comprehensive agreement which was struck under the leadership of the European Union. We worked very well together to fix and manage an international problem. Today we see our engagement with Russia as selective. In a sense, this is an evolution in our engagement – I completely agree with you – compared to what it was four or five years ago. There are some issues that we can work with Russia and some we cannot, like Crimea for example, because our system of valued interests does not allow this.
ON TODAY’S WAR REFUGEES AND TOMORROW’S CLIMATE REFUGEES
The humanitarian crisis and the influx of millions of refugees – undoubtedly a global issue – has largely impacted the EU due to its geographical proximity to war-torn Syria. Is the EU trying to persuade Australia to increase the number of Syrian refugees it will accept? Also, recent articles in the Australian press have mentioned that the EU is looking into adopting elements of the harsh Australian policy in order to secure its borders, is that true?
Europe has its own dynamic, its own legislation, its own geographical location including its own relation within the system and outside the EU. While we are not changing our position for those who are in need of international protection i.e. those who are described in the Refugee Convention of 1951 as refugees. We are looking into how we can make our borders more secure. Yes, we are introducing a number of legislative and passport control systems but I wouldn’t say that we are copying, or even that we are inspired by, the Australian model. We are looking at what others have done but our system is different; we are not an island, but a union with land and sea borders. The 1951 Convention is part of EU law, we have the Schengen Information System and in general we are dealing with a different situation. What we have common with Australia being part of this global problem we are all facing. There are nearly 60 million people who are in search of international protection. The EU does its part but as we are raising global awareness about the overwhelming number of refugees we are asking for the international community to assume their part of the responsibility or obligation as well. We believe that everybody should be doing more, including ourselves. We are not lecturing anyone, though, just telling all sides that they should step up and increase the number of refugees they accept.
The EU is leading the world in establishing innovative and very effective policies to tackle climate change. In November, in signing the Paris agreement, Australia committed to a 26-28 per cent emissions cut below 2005 levels, while Europe has agreed to a 40 per cent cut till 2030. Drawing on Australia’s energy efficiency issue and current policies preventing us from reaching our commitment goal, are there any lessons we could learn from the EU? In what way will KIC benefit us?
From a political point of view, I have no place to comment on the domestic policy of Australia but certainly, the government needs to reconcile the protection of the environment with the use of resources. It is a challenge that we all have to deal with.
Australia as well as another 196 countries that committed to reduce their emission in Paris is in the process of defining the legislation to implement this Paris commitment. The EU is doing the same but we are more ambitious because we had an early start in the 90s and have put an enormous amount of effort.
As for KIC, it is beyond politics. KIC is people who work on the ground and put together regulatory systems, business systems in research and academy around the table and try to find concrete solutions to help implement the Paris agreement. The Oasis project launched recently in Europe was developed by KIC. It is a model that calculates how the insurance and re-insurance companies can factor in their business plan the risks of climate change. KIC puts around the table a variety of people with the same key objective: to cut emissions.
It is a tried-out initiative, a grassroot initiative, an incubator of ideas of understanding that climate change is a reality.
Paris is an international commitment and each country has to do its own bit. In Europe, KIC Climate has been working effectively for the last four years.
One of the main objectives is for KIC Climate to work for other countries too and Australia is the first country outside Europe taking up the KIC Climate initiative, which I think will benefit Australia immensely.